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Squeaky clean?

HOOVER, Ala. – In what might be the most stunning development in the 75-year history of the Southeastern Conference, the most penalized, most colorfully renegade league in the NCAA may finally be probation-free come next June.

Yes sir, the SEC (Surely Everybody’s Cheating) has gone clean, at least according to the infractions committee. On June 11, 2008, Mississippi State football comes off probation and if nothing happens between now and then, the SEC, by definition, has been legitimized.

Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone.

“Well, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, but we’ll see,” said Commissioner Mike Slive, who knows the league is just one bag of cash to a tailback from disaster.

Since the league has had at least one school (and as many as five) on probation every day since January 3, 1985, Slive is understandably proud of just the possibility. He brought it up Wednesday at the league’s three-day preseason media session here in suburban Birmingham.

But he isn’t naïve, either. No league can control this stuff. And the SEC isn't just any league. So I asked him if he thought coaches and boosters had stopped cheating, or just gotten so good at it they avoid getting caught?

He was silent for a few seconds before replying, “I’m not going to answer your question.”

Later, however, he did note, “I’m not going to vouch for every single person.”

Slive knows the landscape of college athletics. He once worked as an attorney representing schools against the NCAA. Later he served as commissioner of Conference USA (dubbed “Conference ATM” at the time by GQ’s Charlie Pierce) before inheriting a compliance disaster at the SEC.

“When I took over (in 2002) half our institutions were somewhere in the NCAA infractions pipeline,” he said.

That was the status quo for the SEC. As Slive notes, “without question we have the most passionate fan base in the country.” And with passion comes the demand to win, which quickly becomes the demand to win at all costs.

“I just think that for years there was, perhaps, the thinking that, ‘well, everybody is doing it,'” said C.M. Newton, who as a player, basketball coach and athletic director has been around the league since the late 1940s.

And really, in some way, everybody was doing it. All 12 schools have been hit with major infractions since 1990. (Yes, even Vanderbilt, albeit for a semi-lame charge against women’s basketball.) Overall the league has been convicted a record 47 times. Auburn and Georgia have combined for 13 themselves.

So when Slive came in and declared that the SEC would be probation-free within five years, plenty of snarky media scoffed. After all, there is a certain absurdity about a league actually writing out a plan that states it isn’t going to cheat anymore.

But lo and behold, here we almost are. Well, if they can make it.

“If we make it, it’ll be great,” Slive said. “If not, it’ll be close.”

That’s the funny part of this. What the SEC is on the verge of accomplishing is, indeed, impressive. But does anyone really believe rule breaking has been eradicated? Anyone?

Newton notes that in most coaches' contracts today, the first clause for being fired is breaking NCAA rules – so maybe that’s what’s happened. But although that may be true, “not winning enough” is the unwritten provision that trumps everything.

Maybe the lack of scandal is a result of budget-crunched newspapers cutting their investigative staffs? Or maybe the coaches no longer rat on each other the way Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer once did to Alabama.

Or maybe all the NCAA investigators can’t make it to campus because they fly Delta and are stuck at Atlanta Hartsfield waiting for their connections?

Or maybe the SEC really is playing by the rules?

That would be nice, but its only plausible if you are willing to suspend belief in human nature and ignore the fact that the SEC is more competitive than ever (six different school realistically believe they can win a national title in any given year), pays coaches more money than ever (Bama’s Nick Saban is making $4 million per) and is in the spotlight more than ever (a record 600 credentials were issued for media day).

One of those press badges went to the host of a radio show out of little Ozark, Ala. His name is Ronnie Cottrell, of WJRM’s “The Ronnie Cottrell Show.”

Cottrell, if you recall, was the former Alabama recruiting coordinator caught in the middle of a 2000 scandal that revealed booster Logan Young doled out a $150,000 to land the Crimson Tide a defensive lineman from Memphis.

Even by SEC standards it was a breathless tale. A buck fifty for one guy? And not even a quarterback? Bama eventually got creamed by the NCAA and Cottrell lost his job even though it was never proven he committed any major infractions. He went on to sue the NCAA, among others. Some of it is still pending.

So on the same day Slive was in a second-floor ballroom talking about the SEC’s new glowing compliance record, a casualty of one of the league’s most infamous scandals was downstairs broadcasting live. Only in the SEC.

“Every time I’ve asked for a media credential, Mr. (Charles) Bloom (who handles the league’s media relations) has given me one,” Cottrell shrugged.

And so what does he think of the idea that the SEC is suddenly clean?

“This is the most competitive conference in the country in recruiting,” Cottrell said. “Top to bottom, recruiting is just very competitive. The guys who get the top players are going to win. As the competition gets tougher, some guys are going to cross the line.”

That’s just how the world works – people cheat at everything. In this sport, not many people even care. During his coaching career Lou Holtz famously put four schools (including Arkansas and South Carolina) on probation, and yet last year released a book about ethical leadership.

That’s big-time college athletics for you. And nowhere is it bigger than here, infraction free or not, culture change or not.

“Is there cheating going on in the SEC?” Cottrell said before breaking into a smile. “Well, what do you think?”

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